Black Alpaca wool – the ‘Dom Pérignon’ of natural fibres

“Black alpaca is our Dom Pérignon of natural fibres. It is the one that created the buzz. Which makes sense because you think about it, there is something intriguing about the colour black,” says Satoru Inoue, one half of duo-team that set up the social design brand The Inoue Brothers. Instead of letting the fast-paced industry dedicate the focus their collections, the studio produces capsule collections which stem from the brothers’ passion to produce the best wool knitwear and accessories, in the most responsible way. The Inoue Brothers most recent project saw them take to the Andes in Peru, where they entered into a partnership with Pacomarca Alpaca Research Facility to manufacture the finest alpaca fibre. Their passion for alpaca and vicuña wool goes much further back than their most recent project; however – it stems from the actual foundation of their design studio.

Alpaca wool – the industry’s unknow luxury fibre

Born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark, the two Japanese brothers, Satoru and Kiyoshi Inoue, founded their design studio back in 2004 after visiting alpaca herders in Bolivia. It was a trip that would change Satoru’s perspective of the world for good. “When we went there, the person who took us there told us that we were going to the poorest country in South America and visiting the poorest people in the country – the alpaca herders,” recalls Satoru. Although one of his first instincts was to immediately go into charity mode, after meeting them and seeing their way of living, his viewpoint quickly shifted. “I was blown away by how strong and grounded they were, and so connected to their roots and heritage. These alpaca herders have been living in coexistence with nature and their animals – the alpacas – for centuries.” What surprised Satoru and his brothers, even more, was how the herders could be working with such a unique, luxurious and precious material – alpaca wool – and not have a sustainable income?

Alpacas have been domesticated in Peru, Bolivia and Chile for more than 5,000 years. Living high up in the mountains in grassy terrain, their herbivore diet and surrounding environment causes them to grow exceptionally fine and versatile wool. Warm, soft and hypoallergenic, alpaca wool also acts as natural insulation. “As a natural material, the more you use it and wear it, the better it becomes – the same as with sheep’s wool. It’s anti-bacterial, anti-odour and features self-cleaning properties.” It is easy to see why the indigenous people of South American have been weaving alpaca fibre into fabrics for centuries. After launching their first collection of alpaca knitwear back in 2008, the Inoue Brothers were interested in producing more collections – but first, they wanted to help improve the quality of the fibres available on the market. “We sought out to cut out the middle man – who may exploit the herder and set up a business model based on direct trade.”

Safe-guarding the production of alpaca wool in the Andes

Trading directly with a company known as Incalpaca, they helped set up programmes which educated the herders on best herding and shearing practices to help improve the overall quality of alpaca wool produced. However, when the brothers were travelling through to South American a few years later, they were blown away by the high quality of the alpaca fibre found in Peru. After talking to the CEO of Incalpaca, he suggested that they meet with one of their partners – the founder behind the Pacomarca Alpaca research facility in Peru. Since the quality of alpaca fibres from the region began to deteriorate several years ago, due to climate change and tourism, a push for cheaper fibres and lack of education, the research facility has been working hard to implement positive change and improve the quality of the fibre.

After travelling to the Andes and visiting the facility, which aims to breed pedigree alpacas using state-of-art technology and improve herding communities by teaching shearing techniques and fibre sorting procedures, the brothers knew they found their life-long partner. “We are so lucky to have met Alonso Burgos and the team at Pacomarca,” says Satoru, who refers to Burgos as his ‘sensei’. “We know that it usually takes many lifetimes to bring around real industry change, but we hope that by working together with the group, we can continue to impact the industry positively.” At heart, Satoru and his brother are genuine fashion activists, who wish to use fashion and their studio as a tool to bring around sustainable change. By increasing the quality of raw alpaca fibre, they can help raise awareness for the fibre within the industry’s fine-fibres market while incentivising the herders’ communities way of life, without disrupting their traditions to create economic stability.

The importance of good herding practices

From their recent partnership and capsule collection, the brothers learned that to achieve the finest quality of alpaca fibre, the animals need to be well taken care of. “If the animals are stressed the quality of the fibre decreases. Stress manifests itself physically, which affects the animals’ production of hair.” When an alpaca is stressed, it will produce thinner fur, with a higher whiteness and guard level – the type of hairs which cause the yarn to be itchy. As alpacas are herd animals which mainly consume a diet of grass, they need to be able to move freely from pasture to pasture. Simultaneously, the herders themselves also need to be well-taken care of to look after their herds the best way. If they are stressed, this will also affect the animals negatively. “How the alpacas are treated when they are sheared, and how their wool and hairs are sorted is also important,” notes Saturo. “If you shear an alpaca the wrong way, then the animal will become stressed and not produce as fine hair as before, mixing the standard of the hair gathered and ruining the overall quality level.”

The Inoue Brothers are now calling on any brands or retailers interested in working with alpaca fibre to work with herders directly, rather than an agency or material reseller. He values the direct relationship they have set up with Incalpaca and Parcomarca. “As alpaca wool is still a relatively unknown material within the fashion industry, unlike its counterparts like cashmere or angora, it is important not to fall into the traps of the industry,” warn Satoru. At the same time, he is aware that one challenge of working with alpaca fibre is ensuring consumers are willing to pay a fair price for the product. Consumers need to understand why an alpaca sweater or scarf costs more than a wool or synthetic fibre one. “You need to creatively be able to work with the design side and storytelling and avoid getting stuck in a single category.”

The Inoue Brothers love of black alpaca wool

One way the have avoided falling into this trap is by working with black alpaca fibres. A true fashion staple, which never goes out of style or demand, when they first heard about pure black alpacas and wanted to make a collection with their wool, there were estimated to be less than 100 pure black alpacas in Peru. “This was back in 2015 – from the collective herd of 4 million alpacas were able to get roughly 50 kilos of black alpaca wool to produce 200 garments.” This year, the studio was able to buy in 500 kilos of black alpaca wool, due to selective breeding, an increase in demand and better herding skills. “Although there is still more demand for white alpaca wool because it is easier to dye, we use pure black alpaca wool – it doesn’t have to be dyed or treated.” Today, black alpaca is the studio’s flagship fibre, one which they will continue to use for years to come. “It may have cost us more to produce, but it has been more than worth it.”

Since 2014, PROMPERÚ has been promoting this sustainable and eco-friendly way of preserving alpaca fibre through the Alpaca del Perú industry brand and its many partners, working side by side with hundreds of Andean communities.

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